Comment

Second decisive shift

On paper in Assam, the Congress had identified the electorate’s pain points well enough. Its manifesto promised non-implementation of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), three million jobs in a State historically struggling with unemployment numbers, raising the daily wage of tea garden workers, free electricity up to 200 units per household and ₹2,000 monthly income support to all homemakers. An emphatic no to the CAA was meant to win back the ethnic Assamese vote that had decisively shifted to the BJP over the course of the 2014 general election and the State poll two years later. The wage sop intended to court what was once an assured party vote bank that years of silent work by the RSS and its affiliates had chipped away. A tie-up with the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) of Badruddin Ajmal, a prospect which the party had officially shied away from all these years, was aimed at ensuring non-fragmentation of the ‘Muslim vote’.

And yet, the whole isn’t quite the same as the sum of its parts. The 10-party ‘Grand Alliance’ is only projected to win around 40 seats as the BJP-led NDA seems set to romp home a second time with a victory margin almost mirroring its debut triumph in the State in 2016. So, what gives?

No longer a hot-button issue

The results show that the cataclysm of the street protests in several parts of Assam in 2019 notwithstanding, the CAA has lost salience as a hot-button issue in an environment where the ruling party has constantly endeavoured to fuse Hindu nationalism with Assamese sub-nationalism. The secular lens on the post-1971 immigrant into Assam has electorally lost to a differential approach that advocates the rehabilitation of some and expulsion of the rest. The BJP’s junior partner, the Asom Gana Parishad, the torch-bearer of regionalism since the days of the Assam Agitation, read this shifting ground right, pulling several stunts of quitting the government but ultimately betting that the ‘new’ Assamese nationalism increasingly aligns with the BJP’s.

Assam Jatiya Parishad and Raijor Dal, the regional outfits forged in the crucible of the 2019 anti-CAA protests, cut little ice even in areas of high ethnic Assamese concentration, resulting in the ruling alliance retaining in large measure the leads it had built in eastern, northern and parts of middle Assam in the 2016 Assembly election. The consolidation was, perhaps, aided by the coming together of the Congress and the AIUDF. While the combined vote share of the two parties in the last election exceeded that of the BJP and AGP, the joining of forces has had the opposite effect, with Hindu voters constantly reminded of the spectre of Mr. Ajmal as potential Chief Minister by the ruling alliance during the campaign.

A stable ship

As it is, Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal and Finance Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma were seen as piloting a more stable ship than a Tarun Gogoi-less Congress that farmed out campaign verticals to his son, the State unit chief and the Leader of the Opposition in the outgoing Assembly. The government has lasted a full term devoid of major scams, and synergy with the BJP-led Central government has enabled a more focused delivery of development schemes. Cash doles targeting the tea tribes and beneficiary schemes such as ‘Orunodoi’, through which the State extends financial aid to women, have been regarded as generating goodwill for the government.

Ironic as it may sound, the pandemic also helped the ruling dispensation claw its way back in Assam. COVID-19 snuffed out both the anti-CAA stir in Assam and the anti-National Register of Citizens (NRC) movement in the rest of the country (most anti-CAA votaries in the State support the NRC). The lockdowns and curfews defused the pent-up anger in the aftermath of the December 2019 protests in which five persons were killed in police firing in Guwahati. They presented a beleaguered government the opportunity to seize back the narrative with proactive (and well-publicised) steps to safeguard the State... and, as the results bear out, itself.

abdus.salam@thehindu.co.in


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Printable version | Jun 15, 2021 4:04:35 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/second-decisive-shift/article34465829.ece

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